I had three days in Chicago city, and although I didn`t get to see all of the sights that I had wanted to, I think I was able to get a feel for it. It`s got a good vibe and I think it would be a cool city to live in. We got the train in from Naperville, a commuter town in the Chicago area, on a big, old-fashioned double-decker silver bullet train. I love taking the train, but it`s apparently not that popular in the States, even though it`s quite cheap for long distances. I think that because people have to rely on their car for getting around everyday, that they`d rather take a road trip to have their car with them on their holiday, or else save time and fly to their destination and rent a car. The cheapness of the train tends to attract a lot of crazies, so you have to be prepared to humour people for the long journey. The rail network isn`t very extensive either, and when we were in Memphis we met people who were traveling with Amtrak and they couldn`t go to Nashville because the train didn`t go there. The main use for the rail seems to be for cargo, and a few times I saw freight trains that extended for what seemed like miles as they trundled past.

Amish folk: not the only time I saw them on my trip either.

The architecture of Chicago is as impressive as it is renowned because it is such a modern city, with the oldest buildings there dating from the 1870s, when Chicago was able to experiment with new architectural practices and build skyscrapers. You can`t miss the Sears Tower (or Willis Tower, as it`s now officially known as) because it`s the tallest building in the US, although I didn`t have time to go to the top of it. I like the massing of the top section of the tower with its stepped approach to the apex, which makes it more interesting than the regular Miesian rectangular block.

I went on a river boat tour of downtown because it was one of the things that was most highly recommended to me, however, in the rush to catch the last tour of the day, we ended up going on a different tour to the one run by the Architecture Foundation. I copped it a few minutes in because our guide was focusing more on history rather than architecture. It was a pity I didn`t get the in-depth architecture tour, but I didn`t mind too much because the tour we went on was very interesting and we did learn something about the architecture too.

Marina City was built in the early sixties and are known as the Corncobs from their shape which resembles Illinois’ most famous product. They take up an entire block on State Street and were built as a city within a city, combining residences and offices with facilities such as stores, restaurants, a theatre and a marina on the river, from which it gets its name. The bottom 19 floors are a valet-operated spiral car park for the residences above.

Carbide & Carbon Building: built in 1929 in Art Deco style, the black granite and green terracotta facade with 24 carat gold leaf accents made it stand out when it was built from the neighbouring sandstone buildings and today from its neighbouring glass and steel constructions. Popular legend has it that it was designed to look like a champagne bottle.

This is the Crain Communications Building (1983) that is supposed to be ‘the feminine counter to the phallicism of most skyscrapers’, but which unfortunately isn’t true.

The Bean

After roaming around Centennial Park, we indulged our consumerist habits and went shopping on Michigan Avenue until after dark when we went to the Hancock Tower for a cocktail in the Signature Lounge. It wasn’t terribly expensive and we were seated right by the window facing onto Lake Michigan, where a full moon was reflected on the water. We were just about to leave when a fireworks display started over Navy Pier. It was strange to see fireworks from above and they looked so far away, but it was a beautiful way to finish our cocktails.

Two girls came over to the window to take photos and we heard them speaking Japanese so we said hello. They replied in flawless English so that at first I thought we had made a mistake, but they were over on holiday from Hiroshima. It was nice to meet a little bit of Japan on our holiday. Not to mention the countless Irish people I heard in Chicago. We would be walking down the street and I’d be able to tell by the cut of someone that they were probably Irish, we’d walk by and sure enough I’d hear the Irish accent.

After our sophisticated cocktail, we had a night of debauchery in Belmont with Liz’s cousin, and the next day we spent vintage shopping and margarita drinking. All in all, a successful couple of days, and I would love to go back to Chicago again in the future.

Charting the Route

Well, I`m back in Japan so now I finally have time to process all of the America that I saw. It was an intense three weeks, but it was a wonderful experience. I still can`t believe everything that I did.

Above is a map of the major places I went on the trip. We flew to Chicago via Houston, and it was a pretty close connection after going through immigration, customs and security. One thing that struck me when we were going through the airport was that the signs were all bilingual, in English and Spanish. We spent ten days in Illinois – six days in Naperville, a commuter town outside Chicago, two days in Freeport and three days in downtown Chicago. It was good having so much time there because it allowed us to recover from our journey, do little bits like go shopping and get our hair done, and we got to see some different aspects of a Northern state – cool yet business-minded Chicago, upper-middle-class suburbia and fading towns of the Mid-West.

We had planned on this being a full-on road trip, but we hadn`t planned very well after that. So instead of renting a car to Nashville and zooming through St Louis and Memphis, we decided last minute to fly from Chicago to Nashville (via New Orleans) and rent a car there to Memphis and back. We spent one night in Memphis and had enough time to do some sight-seeing the next morning, and we spent two nights in Nashville with Liz`s aunt, though we just had one day of sight-seeing there.

Leaving Nashville felt like we were truly going to Dixie because then we headed deeper south into Alabama to meet Sister No.1 and her brood of boys. The next day we went back up to Tennessee and Knoxville to stay with the parents. We were based there for about six days though we took day trips to the Smoky Mountains and to the Biltmore Estate near Asheville, North Carolina. It was in Knoxville that I felt like I really got to experience the religion, politics and food that the South represents. It was surely an experience.

We had two days down in Atlanta with Sister No. 2 and her little girls, and although at that stage I was running out of steam, we did get to see downtown Atlanta and meet up with a friend who had just returned home from Japan. Then we started our epic journey back, flying from Atlanta to Tokyo via Washington D.C., then waiting for the nightbus to take us home to Kanazawa.